The Birmingham Flute Society (1856 - c.1954)
The members of the Birmingham Flute Society celebrated their Thirtieth Anniversary in 1886. To mark the occasion they played flute quartets at the home of the society’s founder in the village of Clent, followed by dinner and speeches at a local hostelry ‘The Lyttleton Arms’.
The society had been founded by a local flautist, James Mathews, to ‘…encourage and develop the performance of classical flute music, and for the improvement of its members.’ At first it was known as the Birmingham Flute Trio and Quartet Society, but the title was simplified and shortened in 1871. Requiring all its members to be amateur, to attend weekly rehearsals and to pay an annual subscription of £1, the society attracted to its ranks the best amateurs in the district and included at least one woman, Miss G Digby (niece of the well known flautist, Edith Penville).
J Sutcliffe Smith’s book ‘The Story of Music in Birmingham’  has a brief entry [p 59] about the Flute Society, stating that this unique body ‘talked flute, played flutes, collected flute music and gave concerts…before overflowing audiences’. Music by Kuhlau, Walckiers and Furstenau featured frequently in their programmes and all money raised at concerts was donated to local good causes.
The Society had rules and a committee which consisted of a President [Joseph Richardson until his death in 1862 when Henry Nicholson took over the role], a Vice President James Mathews, an Honorary Secretary [W R Hughes until 1867 when he was succeeded by A H Hughes] and an Honorary Treasurer [successively Thomas Parrott, Walter Allcock, G C Draper and William Johnson]. From 1857 onwards, accounts were kept carefully in a little ledger. They show frequent payments of a few guineas to the conductors Benjamin Tilley and William Langston. Payments were also made for insurance premiums and in August 1871 the great sum of £5. 13s 2p was paid to Chapell for sheet music. In later years the society also bought a piano and by September 1950 had a bank balance of £23 16s.
Over the years the society amassed a vast library of sheet music that was bound into leather backed volumes coded by colour and meticulously catalogued. According to the rules of the society any member was free to borrow this music.
That the society was both proud and conscious of the value of its collection is demonstrated by the publication in 1894 of a catalogue with a lengthy prologue stating that ‘it is believed that this is the first time a local society has published a practically exhaustive catalogue of concert music specially written or published for the flute. The only exceptions to this class of music in the catalogue are the Grand Solos of Kuhlau, the Beethoven of the flute, who was a contemporary and friend of the great maestro. [Also] included in the catalogue are many numbers of a lighter character which have been specially arranged for the society. In the event of the society being dissolved from any unforeseen circumstances, it is agreed by the existing members that the valuable collection of music – the result of many years acquisition – shall be offered to the Birmingham and Midland Institute, if it continues to hold Flute Classes and, if not, to the Royal Academy of Music.’
From a letter written by a member in February 1928, it is clear that the value of the collection was not lost on the proposed recipient as a section states that ‘The Birmingham and Midland Institute is concerned as regards the latter section of our rule no 10 [the dissolution of the society] which suggested that the members be free to gift the music to any public school of their choosing or the Midland institute by default’
The society managed to keep going through both World Wars although the library was divided up for safe keeping and in 1945 there were just five members remaining. By 1949 numbers had increased again, although meetings were no longer held weekly, and on June 1st 1949 their performance was broadcast by the BBC for the “In Britain Now” series. Unfortunately, no copy of this broadcast remains, unless someone has made a private copy (?). The BBC paid the society a fee of five guineas [£5 5s] and also recorded an interview with the society by John Francis. Sadly the interview was not broadcast, due to the quality of the recording being too poor, for which the producer David Gretton apologized. However a transcript is still in existence and reveals that there were 8-12 members at that time, plus the rather delightful information that ‘flutes were handed down to younger payers by their grandfathers for 16 shillings returnable on proof of proficiency’
It is not known when or why the the Birmingham Flute Society was finally disbanded. Margaret Lowe puts the date as 1954.
A letter from a member, Norman Slade, to The Principal of the Birmingham School of Music, dated 7 Sept 1983 says,
‘Dear Sir, When the Midland Institute of Paradise closed I was apparently the sole remaining member and in accordance with arrangements the music etc was handed over to the Midland Institute through their secretary Mr Eric Knight and I understood that it was handed on to the Birmingham School of Music which had then been formed. The music consisted of sheet music and a number of specially bound volumes of Duets, Trios, Quartets etc together with some Table Music Stands, Catalogues etc all contained in a long high cupboard.’
Sadly this exceptional collection now rests mostly unused, gathering dust in the library of the Birmingham Conservatoire. When I visited the collection a few weeks ago, Music Librarian Francis Firth made me very welcome but told me that to his knowledge, I was the first person to have requested to see the collection during his time there. The collection covers four shelves but most of it is too brittle to be used by players now.
However, some players still remember using it towards the end of the 20th century:
Helen Mills-Cross told me ‘I can remember as a student here back in the 70's playing through Beethoven symphonies for 4 flutes from big tomes in old fashioned notation engravings (which we thought very quaint), which I think were a legacy of this and housed at the Conservatoire library.’
Margaret Lowe said ‘..in 1966-7 the librarian Muriel Wiley, allowed me to take several volumes of trios to play with Anthony Moroney and Michael Hirst, then principal flute and 3rd flute respectively in the CBSO. I remember that they sometimes arrived at my home after playing a CBSO concert, and at Tony's insistence we played trios until the small hours of the morning I was afraid that we might wake my baby son, but we never did’
During the years of The Birmingham Flute Society, most of the eminent professional flautists of England were enrolled on the list of Honorary Members. One of them, Antonio Minasi, dedicated his Grand Quartet in A to the society. Himself a player of exceptional ability, Minasi (c. 1815 – 1870) was reputed to have been performing on the flute in public at the age of just four years. However, the Grand Quartet also demonstrates the apparent skill of the Birmingham Flute Society since it demands such difficulties as the final A major chord of the second movement that asks the 2nd flute to hold a top A pianissimo.